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5 Holiday Survival Tips (or When You Need a Holiday from the Holidays)

Big fuzzy white dog naps with soft support collar around her neck

How is it that the holidays suddenly jump up on us with alarming speed? Or is that just me?

With the holidays of course come family/friend gatherings and trips where groups of people are stuck in the same place for days (um, I mean celebrating together).

If you’re a sensitive person who’s easily overwhelmed by too much…muchness, and you find you need a holiday from the holidays, then here are my 5 tips for navigating holiday visits in a kinder-to-your-nervous-system way. (Plus a bonus one.)

Tip #1: You are allowed to have regular time to yourself

In some families, there is pressure to be involved in all the family goings-on during the holidays — especially if you don’t live in the same city and only see each other occasionally. But only you get to decide how much or how little to participate.

A) It doesn’t make you a bad daughter/sister/aunt/cousin/parent and

B) if they react negatively, they’re allowed to have their feelings, but it’s still your prerogative to take a break for your own sanity.

(Maybe it’s obvious to you, but it wasn’t to me for a long time!)

Build in a part of each day where you can get away from the hubbub to decompress and nurture yourself in the ways that work for you. (Maybe it’s multiple shorter breaks.) If it’s a long stay over a week or two, consider giving yourself half or a full day off!

If suitable, you can let the others know at the start that you’ll be doing this so it’s not a surprise. Just say something light about needing a bit of quiet time each day. Others might actually appreciate a bit of space too.

Or if you need to, just make casual excuses:

  • Say you’re going to the store to pick up X / going to get some fresh air / needing to stretch your legs
  • Pretend you’re going to the bathroom or getting a sweater and end up there a loooong time.
  • Take a very leisurely bath or a nap, whether real or not.
  • Volunteer to run errands like shovelling snow or walking the dog.

Tip #2: Have a comfort item on you

If you’re around school-aged kids, you know that sensory fidgets like Pop Its and Spinners are the big thing for self-regulation. Those might not appeal to you but the strategy itself can help: find a small object that feels good to hold and touch, and keep it in your pocket for when you start to feel activated or overwhelmed.

I have some lovely smooth rocks and rounded pieces of beach wood that I carry with me. They feel very comforting to hold and rub.

You can get squishy stress balls or putty from toy stores and dollar stores. More ideas here.

It works by stimulating your sensory perception and engaging in repetitive actions, both of which calm the nervous system.

Bring a stuffie, or a photo of a loved one that you can keep in your bedroom. There’s something comforting about nurturing that small child in us with a teddy bear hug.

Tip # 3: Be kind to yourself and take pauses

If your family is like mine, someone is going to lose their shit at some point — whether it’s you or someone else. It may help to remember that:

  • everyone is doing the best they can in a heightened situation, including you;
  • Many people’s window of tolerance/presence will probably be smaller than usual;
  • and that even when we’ve done a ton of work on ourselves, our old relational patterns are going to come up in some form or other

When things start to heat up or get intense, call a pause before it gets big. Leave the room if you need to, and if there’s enough sense of connection with them, maintain the connection by letting them know that you will be back once you’re calmer. (Or just get out of Dodge if you need to!).

Tip # 4: Self-soothing tools

There are a number of simple things you can do to soothe and calm yourself when you feel triggered. Here’s a video from Peter Levine (creator of Somatic Experiencing) explaining how to to do a few, including:

  • Self-hug (I sometimes call it the heart hold)
  • Placing hands on your body
  • Tapping and squeezing to feel our boundaries

Tip # 5: An empathetic ear

Have at least one person that you can vent to or just connect with when things feel like too much. This might be your partner whether they’re along with you or not, or a friend or therapist you can reach out to by phone.

Another option is to bring a journal and let it out in writing, or speak it to a voice memo app on your phone.

And those are the 5 tips! Let me know if you find any of them helpful.

So, to get back to that holiday from the holidays:

Bonus Tip: Time to Recover

If at all possible try to schedule a day to recuperate when you return home before you have to jump into the work world. Or at least don’t book any social things on the first day or days back.

Give your nervous system time and space to recover from so much social stimulation. And have your therapy session booked for soon after — lol.

What are some of your strategies for making it through festive holidays? Comment below, I’d love to know!

~Alison

Photo credit aiko vanhulsen


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Wild Realities and Unstoppable Courage

Sun rays shining upwards through white clouds in a blue sky

Even if your early environment was one of empathic failure, developmental trauma, and insecure attachment, it is never too late [to heal]. The wild realities of neuroplasticity and the courage of the human heart is unstoppable and an erupting force of creativity.

– Matt Licata

I’ve been feeling so inspired and elated lately by the changes I’m seeing in my people* that I just wanted to celebrate with you.

(*The word “client” is so impersonal and clinical, when the work we do together is about deep caring and being with the specific expression of each person’s history. But I feel that I have to use it to be clear, while “people” feels more human but slightly odd/vague. Anyway…)

Each woman who comes into my session space or meets with me online has, of course, a unique story of what happened in her early years and how that has impacted her emotionally, psychologically, physically, and physiologically. Some of the women have chronic pain, gut challenges or auto-immune issues, others have sleep disturbances or struggle with anxiety and depression. They feel held back in their careers, or their love life, or in their sense of joy and creativity. For some of my people, the world or other folks can feel overwhelming and unsafe, and they can find themselves suddenly taken over by panic in the middle of the street. Exhaustion is a pretty prevalent theme.

All of them have struggled like this for years — maybe even for a lifetime. It can feel so hopeless, like things will never change.

And yet!

And yet I am witnessing things changing, not only for my people, but in myself and my community of practitioners as we receive this work too and share our personal stories of change.

There’s a shift in how we hold ourselves — our more buoyant, open bodies and faces; in a new brightness in the eyes, a stronger voice.

It’s in the way we start to have more space when conflict arises, and just pause to let something different transpire instead of the old, knee-jerk patterns.

It’s even in a different use of language that shows how our perspectives about ourselves and others are shifting as our resilience grows.

It’s in having more capacity to stay in connection with other people without abandoning ourselves and what we need.

Just reading that back to myself makes me want to cheer!

Let me be quick to add that these aren’t big, obvious changes — often it’s a smidgeon of a shift one week, a noticing after the fact, that, “Oh wait, I didn’t react the way I usually do…” — but one day we realize that the way we are is just different now than before, in a way that feels solid in its quietness.

I hope you feel inspired reading this, and that it gives you hope that things can change in your life!

~Alison

photo credit: audreyjm529


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My Vampire Worm Dream

Colourful Persian rugs lying rumpled on top of each other

In my dream, I’m lying on a soft Persian rug in the middle of a cozy living room, sleeping, when I am woken up by something rippling under me. After a few seconds, I realize with horror that bloodsucking worms are writhing underneath me, about to attack.

I panic, grabbing a spray bottle filled with vinegar, and try to spray the heck out of them to kill them off, but the vinegar only makes them break up into little pieces that then become more worms.

Then the little creepers speed up and race out of my reach, and there’s no doubt they will be back to suck my blood as soon as I go back to sleep.

The Problem with Spraying the Worms

So many of us have symptoms related to deep dysregulation: gut clenching, back, neck and jaw pain from muscle tension, panic attacks, anxiety, sleep problems, feeling disconnected from ourselves. And of course what we naturally want is to get rid of them, make them go away.

That can look like trying to exorcise the problem by jumping into a cathartic release healing, or doing practices on your own to ‘open up’ or release it, or doing all the vagal toning videos on YouTube to regulate yourself (bonus points if you know what the Vagus nerve and vagal toning are!).

Unfortunately — and you probably already know this — it doesn’t really work in the long run.

Sometimes it makes it worse, like when you come out of an intense ‘healing’ session having spewed out your rage or sobbed your eyes out, and instead of feeling more integrated and grounded, you go into a tailspin in the days or weeks following.

At other times, you wonder why you’re not making much headway after doing all those damn vagal toning exercises every day for months.

Targeting the symptoms doesn’t get to the root of the problem.

It can also entrench them further — or at the very least create more anxiety and frustration about what’s wrong with you — and can loop into more symptoms.

What to Do Instead?

When it comes to healing deep-seated issues that don’t respond to treatment, what’s needed instead is to work with your body,

1) to nurture the inherent health underneath the symptoms and

2) support more regulation in your nervous system, from the bottom up, so that your body can repair itself.

Once your body has that baseline support, the symptoms get a much better chance to shift from within. The result is core-level change that opens up room for more groundedness, more pleasure, and more energy to live the life you want.

~Alison

Photo by Lida Sahafzadeh on Unsplash


Do you want this kind of from-the-ground-up support? Get in touch and book a consult if you’re feeling drawn to find out more.

Or if you know a woman with ongoing mental or physical health struggles who could benefit, send her my way.

The Still Face Experiment

A mother sits facing her baby, making eye contact, smiling and interacting with her. Baby’s happy and animated, mum is responding to her; everything’s well.

Then mum turns her face away for a moment, and when she turns back, her face is totally flat and devoid of expression. She doesn’t respond in any way to her baby.

And here’s where it gets interesting.

Researchers created this Still Face Experiment in 1975 to explore the effect of maternal depression on infants. They wanted to see how a mother’s lack of response would affect a baby.

From the Still Face Experiment

In this more recent video, baby is at first a little discomfited, trying to make eye contact with her mother. (Just a heads-up that it can be hard to watch, so you might wish to pause the video if needed.) As mum continues to stone-face baby, baby gets more and more agitated and tries harder to get mum to respond. Finally it’s too much for her and she cries and twists her body in distress.

(Thankfully, at that point the mother picks her up and soothes her, and she’s fine again.)

The Still Face Experiment showed how sensitive babies are to feeling seen, heard, and responded to by their caregivers, and that when that responsiveness is not there, babies feel intense distress.

So what does this have to do with you?

Last time I introduced the ACEs Study and how traumatic childhood experiences or environments are directly linked to addictions and chronic health problems (ranging from mental health challenges and gut issues to auto-immune syndromes and major organ disease).

But people who don’t see themselves as having had a traumatic early life can still experience less obvious consequences, like…

On the emotional side:

  • Anger issues (including not accessing anger)
  • Procrastination
  • Persistent feelings of being unlovable, unattractive or unimportant
  • Difficulty with boundaries and close relationships
  • Perfectionism and self-criticism
  • Ongoing feelings of not being able to catch up with life

On the physical side:

  • Migraines
  • Sleep troubles
  • ADHD or difficulty staying focused
  • Coordination and balance problems
  • A history of constipation, diarrhea or other gut troubles
  • Reduced energy, frequent tiredness

But Alison,” you say, “I didn’t have a traumatic childhood. My parents weren’t terrible to me or each other. None of the ACEs apply to me. So why do I have these problems?”

. . .

Let’s go back to the Still Face Experiment.

When social mammals like us are born, we have a biological expectation of warm, emotionally-attuned connection with the adult who birthed us. Because in the wild, if our adults aren’t attending to us carefully or are too wrapped up in their own needs to care for ours, then that essentially means we won’t survive.

And on a nervous-system level, our young bodies respond to this mortal danger by going into stress mode — fight, flight or freeze — like the baby in the video. But the dysregulation of a stress response is only meant to be temporary.

In an ongoing state of vigilance, stress hormones set off a physiological cascade that ends up in physical and emotional consequences. Many of the physical ones don’t show up until years later when the body’s systems are finally too exhausted to maintain our health.

When our adults can’t be there for us

But even if we do have loving, mostly attentive parents, their emotional and psychological state heavily influences our felt safety. If they’re anxious, grieving, preoccupied, or otherwise dysregulated, they will be unable to be present with us and tolerate our more challenging feelings; we quickly learn to keep these in.

(For instance, many of us have a fear of being a burden on a parent — and later, on other people.)

Not being able to rely on our parents early on to help us co-regulate and maintain a basic sense of security can be enough to keep us in a state of low-grade stress.

Sometimes, the nameless danger we feel deep in our bodies is also ancestral trauma. (More on that another time…)

While many of us don’t develop severe health problems, we can still be plagued by these other everyday challenges that reduce our quality of life and our capacity to feel safe to be fully ourselves.

Furthermore, living in a state of dysregulation makes us less resilient. With less capacity to handle and bounce back from difficult events, we may be more deeply affected by them.


Image: Brecht Bug

Why you eat GF/DF/sugar-free/joy-free and still have gut issues

Vintage ad, black text on pale ground: “You want 10c — Results — Pilgrims of the Night — A True Laxative — 25c

A couple of weeks ago I was at a family wedding, chatting with a woman I’d just met (a distant cousin in my partner’s enormous family whose names I try to but can’t keep straight).

When I mentioned that I help women with chronic emotional and health-related problems, she started to tell me how frustrated she was that she had awful digestion issues even though she had always lived a healthy lifestyle.

The poor woman had a terrible time with food — reacting to everything with cramps and bloating or desperate runs to the bathroom. She’d go for weeks only being able to eat rice crackers and broth and having to stay at home in misery.

This had been going on for many years.

The doctors couldn’t help her, and meds weren’t helping her.

She was just done with it.

“Why is it that I see plenty of people eating fast food daily, totally fine, and here I am exercising and eating clean and still as sick as ever?! I’ve never even been drunk or smoked, and I’ve been dealing with this crap since I reached adulthood!”

Ah, yes. Why is it that some of us struggle with anxiety or depression?

What’s the deal with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue and auto-immune diseases?

And why the heck do so many of us have food sensitivities or constipation or even IBS/Crohns/Colitis?

I mean, I bet you eat pretty healthy food; you’ve probably done yoga or meditation and seen countless doctors or naturopaths/osteopaths/chiropractors; you’ve taken so many supplements over the years that you’ve stopped counting.

You’ve done all the things, so why are you still dealing with these symptoms?

It’s frustrating and discouraging. And it can seem so random.

But it might not be.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study

The answer is in the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) which is becoming more and more widely known. In short, this significant study (and subsequent research) showed how difficulties in childhood are directly linked to higher rates of chronic mental and physical health problems, including:

  • anxiety and depression
  • mental health diagnoses
  • autoimmune diseases
  • diseases affecting heart, lungs, and other organs
  • suicide or early death
  • addiction
  • ADHD and hyperactivity

These adverse childhood experiences include:

  • economic hardship
  • parental divorce or separation
  • violence or frequent conflict in the home
  • abuse (emotional, sexual, physical)
  • emotional or physical neglect
  • having a parent with an addiction or mental illness
  • witnessing violence or trauma
  • involvement with foster care

They found that the more ACEs you have, the higher your likelihood of experiencing negative mental, emotional and physical health effects later in life.

So, your unhappy gut is very likely a direct result of unprocessed toxic stress from early in your life.


Now, you might say:

“But I grew up in a stable, loving home. Nothing bad happened to me. So why do I still have these symptoms?”

And that’s what I’ll be talking about next time :).

Comment below (or write me directly)! I want to know:

Can you see a connection between your mental and physical health and what you went through as a child? Or not so much?

If you don’t, I have a feeling the next instalment may help you make sense of things.

Warmly,
~Alison

How handholding is the superpower you didn’t know you had

A child's hand held by an adult's hand, both brown-skinned and wearing black

What touch does to help us feel connected and safe

Can you think back to a time when you had to go through something challenging, so you asked a friend or supportive family member to be there with you? Maybe it was something stressful like a medical appointment or a test result. Maybe it was really difficult, like the funeral of someone close to you.

Perhaps that person held your hand while it was happening, or sat right next to you. It probably felt easier having them there to provide emotional support or to advocate for you.

If you’re curious how having someone’s supportive presence changes how we handle difficulty — and what it does for us on a body level — I have a fascinating 13-minute TED talk for you to check out.

In it, psychologist James Coan explains how the presence of another (especially a loved one) calms our nervous system and makes things feel easier and safer for us.

Click here for the talk: Why we hold hands: Dr. James Coan at TEDxCharlottesville 2013

White man with ponytail (Dr Coan) in front of blue TEDtalk background

I love this TED talk because it really illustrates the almost magical effects of soothing touch on our brains and our wellbeing. It’s something I see all the time when working with in-person clients: by the end of a session they’ve visibly shifted into a state that’s slower, more embodied, and more present. (For you nervous system nerds, that’s a regulated Ventral Vagal state ;).

Not only that, Dr. Coan shows how connection is what we are naturally wired for. He says something at the end that is actually quite moving.

➜ What part of the talk really spoke to you, or gave you an a-ha moment?

Leave a comment or message me, I’d love to know.

With love,
~Alison

An Invitation

From the moment you wake up, you get sucked right into the daily grind: getting ready for work, corralling the kids for school, taking care of a baby or an elder, coordinating schedules. You’re carried along on a stream of external demands, swept up in very real needs — making an income, meeting deadlines, getting food on the table, attending to a thousand things — just making it through each day the best you can.

And most of the time, like most women, you manage pretty well.

And yet…

Meanwhile, there are parts of you that are aching for the space, the time, and the attention to unfurl — the tender parts of you that need you to slow down so they can be attended to. All your unprocessed feelings and experiences — places where you feel stuck, unexpressed griefs, swallowed anger — all these parts that you don’t know how to reach and maybe honestly wish you didn’t have to.

(And secretly you allow yourself to get swept up in the grind so you won’t have to attend to what’s under the surface — I see you because I know it in myself too.)

It’s all there, in your body — those piled-up hurts, those unprocessed feelings that had to get stuffed down so you could keep going. But you know they didn’t go away. You know that they are still there, waiting for the right time to be attended to.

Sometimes it looks like that back pain that keeps returning. Maybe it’s the stiff neck that you get when you’re anxious. Maybe it’s that sense of restlessness or unease or malaise you’ve been carrying for a long time. It could even look like feeling waves of anger when you do hip openers in yoga class.

But what can you do about it all?

Here’s the thing: we humans were never meant to go it alone.

This isn’t just a sentiment, it’s a biological fact. We are social mammals. We evolved to need the grounded, loving, responsive attention of other trusted people in order to feel seen and heard, to heal our wounds, to sense who we really are. And when we slow down and bathe in the listening presence of another, our bodies soften with relief and begin to talk.

Your body knows how to process and heal when it has the space, the time, and the right support.

And when that happens, space opens up for more ease, clarity, expansiveness and energy to come in.

So, if you are aching to:

…stop so you can catch your breath and let yourself reset
…finally lay down your burdens for even just one hour
…feel into your body and whatever it’s holding, and let it go in a safe and supported way

…then reach out. I’m here for you.

Find that place in yourself that is unperturbed, that rests in stillness, where you can return to your true self.

Slip beneath the roiling of emotions and thoughts and find yourself floating in the presence of something greater, more expansive, and more truly you.

~Alison

Photo credit: Kiara Martin


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What to do when the world scares you

Forget self-care — it’s not working!

Chronic pain and self-care

Alex (not her real name) came to see me feeling utterly defeated by unexplained chronic pain that she’d been having for several years. During our check-in, on the verge of tears, she gave a big sigh and said, “I’m doing all the ‘right’ things — I do yoga, I meditate, I eat healthy food. So why am I still in so much pain all the time?! I don’t know what else I can do!”

My heart went out to her.

Despite all her healthy habits, it felt to her like there was nothing left to try, and that she’d be stuck with the pain forever. What good was all this self-care when the pain still kept coming back?

But, as I told Alex, I know it’s really disheartening, but don’t give up — every bit counts!

Doing those things that keep your body and soul happy is still vital for your overall happiness and health, and without them your pain might be quite a bit worse. Self-care goes a long way to powering your healing process.

So why are you still in pain?

With issues like migraines and chronic pain or chronic fatigue, often the triggers are below our conscious control. Your nervous system — the part of you that regulates pain — has gone out of balance and gets easily triggered into pain mode where it cycles without being able to release. The good news? You can train your nervous system to balance itself again. You have more power to heal than you think.

One of effective way to manage chronic pain is also really simple.

Are you in pain right now? Try this tiny bit of self-care with a difference:

   Sit in a comfortable chair with your feet on the ground, and your back supported.

   Eyes closed, take a few slow breaths. Notice any body tension and allowing your exhale to carry it down your legs and out your feet.

   Now notice a part of your body that is in pain, and breathe into it. Place a hand there, if you like. (If your pain is hard to pinpoint to one area, just pick a place in your body.)

Here’s the important part:

Really pay attention to all the sensations there — perhaps texture, hardness, temperature, size and shape — and notice how they shift. Continue breathing normally and observing for one minute.

   End by taking a long breath, exhaling down your legs and into the ground.

How does that area feel right now? How is your overall pain level?

Try to do this throughout the day whenever you notice your pain, or while you’re on a break. It’s a great thing to do, lying in bed, to ease you into sleep.

How is this different from other kinds of self-care?

What you just did there was to begin calming your nervous system through connecting to your body. It’s that simple. (Well, the physiology of it is actually complex and amazing, but the tools are simple!) By regularly connecting in to your body and training your nervous system to calm itself, you’ve got effective tools for managing your chronic pain.

Let’s hear from you:

Do share your observations from doing the exercise.

What do you do for self-care? How do you feel when your symptoms aren’t clearing up even when you’ve been taking care of yourself? Do you notice a difference when you skip your practice or your self-nourishing activities? What inspires you to keep going?

Share your thoughts below!

~Alison

(CC image courtesy of r. nial bradshaw on Flickr)